THE BLOG

So You Want to Save the World? Part 2 -- To Masters or Not to Masters?

12/12/2013 11:01 am ET | Updated Feb 11, 2014

This article follows on from a previous post available here.

I am frequently asked whether a Masters is essential for the international development sector. The short answer is 'Probably Yes'. Mostly because there's a bunch of jobs at the United Nations and other multilateral organizations where a Masters is a minimum requirement, so closing off those options is a pity.

In my mind, the bigger question is more what Masters should you do?

Here, I may surprise you by dissuading you from going for International Relations / International Affairs / International Development / Public Affairs. (Even though I myself did International Affairs.)

It goes back to the fact that the type of job you want in the international development sector matters hugely. If it's human rights, a law degree is preferable (and hey, that's not competitive at all...). If you are interested in health policy, a Masters in Public Health is more appropriate. If you want to do Communications, a Masters in Journalism or Communications is doubtless more relevant. If you want to become, or invest in, social entrepreneurs, a MBA might be more suitable. In fact, a MBA may be a preferred qualification for many of the headquarter-based management jobs. Moreover, if you think you won't find like-minded people on your course, you may want to think again. One of the largest societies at Harvard Business School is the Social Enterprise Club.

It's also about differentiating yourself. If everyone else has a Masters in International Affairs from the same 5 top colleges and spent a year working in a tiny NGO in India, and I receive 200 of the same CVs for one position (as I have), I can't interview all 200 of you.

I would go for the Masters in International Affairs if:
1. You have solid skills acquired through previous work experience, e.g. you spent 5 years working in Marketing, and now you'd like to do Marketing for a big NGO. Although you may not need a Masters anyway then.

2. You really don't know what you want to do. Then a Masters in International Affairs is broad enough so you can spend time dabbling in international law, economics, politics, etc. That's basically what I did, but I still went and worked in private sector after that because no one would pay me to do something interesting in international development after my Masters.

3. You do a joint degree e.g. MBA / MPA from Harvard, or whatever combination suits you best. They may be a year longer, but usually much harder to get into and they allow you to acquire the more specific specialization while studying international or public affairs.

4. You do one which is affordable -- you get a scholarship, or you study outside of the US where it may be very cheap, free, or if you are in Sweden, they may even pay you to do a Masters. If you do two years in the US, you can easily acquire $150,000 of debt, and may come with no job or one which pays $30,000 in Africa (if you're lucky), or $50,000 in the US (if you're lucky). The math does not really add up. With a JD or a MBA, you can at least go and work in the private sector for a few years and pay off your debts if you can't find a decent paying job in international development.

Regardless of what Masters you pick, use the time to do as many internships as possible. You can delve into what a job may be like in reality and the organization may even hire you at the end (you should try and find out whether the organization has done that in the past or whether interns are just free resources they never hire). Thus, consider picking a college which is in the city where you may want to live or where there is a lot of international development activity. DC, New York, Geneva would be the top obvious choices; but other hubs such as Nairobi, Bangkok, London, or the Bay area for social enterprises, should not be discounted. If you're in a college which is pretty but in the middle of nowhere, you won't really be able to do a meaningful internship during the academic year.

If you don't particularly want to do a Masters, don't do one.

If you don't particularly care about the UN jobs, there are plenty of jobs which list 'Masters preferred' in their job descriptions and for which, relevant work experience is much more differentiating, so a Masters is leg up but certainly not an obligation. As stated before, I never have an issue finding 200 CVs with excellent Masters. I do have trouble finding 10 CVs with good relevant experience. Anyway, after a few years, no one really looks at where you went to school or what degree you got unless they went to school there too (in which case they'll be terribly excited you're an alumni even though that really has little to do with your suitability for the job).

If you don't do a Masters, do consider dedicating a year or two to 'invest' in your career -- at whatever stage you feel is most necessary. If you spent 2 years doing a Masters, you'd have to pay $100,000 in academic fees for the privilege. Spending 1 or 2 years earning next to nothing instead could still be more beneficial and certainly more cost-effective if you're doing something that provides great relevant experience and connections. An acquaintance of mine is a partner at a management consulting firm -- she's taking a year's sabbatical to volunteer around the world to figure out what she wants to do next and make the relevant connections. It takes guts yes, but once you've asked yourself the right questions, don't be afraid to take these risks -- if it does not work out, move on to the next thing until you find what makes you happy.